reading recap: sorrow and bliss

Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

📖 GenreLit Fic, Contemporary, Adult
📃 Number of Pages352 pages
🪴 Average Goodreads Rating4.11 ⭐
🌻 My Rating5 ⭐

What’s Sorrow and Bliss About?

Sorrow and Bliss follows Martha, a woman in her 40s suffering from an unnamed mental illness, as she grapples with her failing marriage and family relationships. The story is non-linear, so you’ll see Martha as a teenager, as a young woman, and all the events that led to her current situation, as well as what happens next. 

It’s really hard to describe this book in a way that will make people want to read it — on the surface, it sounds really boring. But it’s the exact opposite of that. Sorrow and Bliss is a quiet, funny, exquisite novel that tackles family, love, youth, fertility, depression, and so much more. It’s almost a family saga with Martha at the center of it. 

It’s also quite sad. Martha has struggled with her mental illness for most of her life, and it has affected each of her relationships. Please mind the triggers before you read this book. Martha’s experiences are described viscerally, so you’ll be right in the depths of her mental state with her. 

But beyond that, Martha is funny, often relatable, and messy. She tends to be cruel as self-sabotage, and often comes off as annoying and listless. Yet, you can’t help but love her, or at least care what happens with her. 

The way Martha tells you about her life, in these darkly funny, acerbic anecdotes that usually end with a line of two that hint at a larger tragedy of her life — just remembering it is giving me goosebumps. Most of the novel is told in this way; an event here and there that doesn’t seem all that important, but that gives you perfect clarity of either Martha and her condition or the people in her life. 

What also stuck with me is the way this author doesn’t give too much time or importance to things that would further label Martha. She gets sexually assaulted, but this is not given too much space; her assailant certainly isn’t. The focus is on her — the aftermath, her getting worse, her getting better. Her mental illness is not named at all, and the author masterfully evades the medicalisation of Martha’s condition which she has suffered throughout her life. 

She allows Martha the clarity of knowing, of better understanding herself, but she doesn’t let us think differently of her. 

“But the thing about labels is, they’re very useful when they’re right because,’ I carried on through her attempt at interruption, ‘because then you don’t give yourself wrong ones, like difficult or insane, or psychotic or a bad wife.”

The side characters in this novel are just as well-written as Martha herself is. Her mother, for example, who has been an embarrassment and a sort of antagonist for most of her life, becomes Martha’s biggest supporter by the end. Her aunt Winsome, who you’ll see mostly as a pompous and annoying rich lady at the beginning, helps her in more ways that you can imagine. 

Each of these characters have their own arcs, which just makes the world of Sorrow and Bliss feel populated and alive with vibrant people. 

One of my favorites is Patrick, of course. Patrick is Martha’s husband, but he’s also the person who has been a part of her extended family for years. At thirteen, his neglectful father forgot to buy him a plane ticket home, so one of Martha’s cousins brings him home. This becomes a tradition, and Patrick a staple in her life. 

“I’m the worst person in the world”
“No, you’re not.” Patrick’s hand came down in a fist and he hit the arm of the sofa. “You’re not the best person in the world either, which is what you really think. You’re the same as everybody else. But that’s harder for you, isn’t it. You’d rather be one or the other. The idea that you might be ordinary is unbearable.”

As time progresses, he turns into more — in the softest, most gentle way possible. He himself is a gentle, soft man, shy and self-effacing, often idolizing Martha and doing his best to make her happy. 

I’d say his character arc is the quietest one — he goes from idolizing Martha to seeing her as human as she is, and leaving her for her own (and his own) good once she starts hurting him. And once they find their way back to each other (not fully, not completely, but tentatively), he’s stronger for it, more determined to do it right this time. 

Of course, I wouldn’t say that the book is without its flaws. Martha has a mental illness, yes, but she’s also very hard to like even without it. She often believes she is better, smarter, more beautiful than the people around her. She treats Patrick horribly. She’s arrogant and condescending. Even her dark states get a bit too much by the end, especially when you can see how destructive they are. 

“I have been unbearable but I have never been unloved. I have felt alone but I have never been alone and I’ve been forgiven for the unforgiveable things I have done.”

You’ll be frustrated with her a lot — I know I was. 

But overall, Sorrow and Bliss is, at least for me, the best book of 2023. I tore through it in one sitting and loved every bit of it. I’m planning a reread at some point this year too. So, obviously, I highly recommend it. You can find it in my go-to recs, and some more recommendations as well. 

“Martha,” he said afterwards, lying next to me. “Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. Usually on their own. As soon as you think that’s it, it’s going to be like this forever, they change again.” That is what life was, and how it continued for three years after that. The ratios changing on their own, broken, completely fine, a holiday, a leaking pipe, new sheets, happy birthday, a technician between nine and three, a bird flew into the window, I want to die, please, I can’t breathe, I think it’s a lunch thing, I love you, I can’t do this anymore, both of us thinking it would be like that forever.”

A cool bit of news is that it’s been picked up for a screen adaptation by New Regency. There are no updates on the development, but the CEO of New Regency seemed excited about the project. I’m looking forward to seeing it, whenever it comes out.

Meg Mason is also working on a new novel at the moment, according to this quote she gave to The Guardian (read the full interview here): 

There is now another novel in the works, perhaps a quarter of the way through: “But what I’m doing is I’m sort of checking every day that I should still be going on with it. And I’m not doing the same thing I did before, which is just to press on. So what I’ve learned out of Sorrow and Bliss, even if it’s difficult, it shouldn’t be that difficult. And if you’re not finding it interesting, no one else is going to find it interesting.” Assuming that she doesn’t have to junk it all, how does she think things will pan out? She laughs. “It’s so tricky to work out how to simulate that sense of privacy that I had before, which is what made the novel basically successful in the end. It’s much harder this time to convince myself no one’s going to see it, because I think they might.”

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *